by a contributor

Deborah Rocheleau

I should have cloud-gazed more. If only I’d focused on something more distant than the cracks in the sidewalk, like constellations on a dewy night, only visible in my peripheral vision. In Chinese, the word for ugly is compound, composed of the adjective “difficult” and the verb “to look”. Literally, hard to look at. Only now do the doctors tell me that life should never be hard on the eyes.

I never sat on my brother’s liquefying couch in the basement, eyes trained on the sniper scope taking up a fourth of the TV screen. Though the TVs got wider, his video games kept parceling up the screen, smaller and smaller. I never spent nights pouring over a glowing computer, but I slumped closer and closer to my art books as I read them in bed, until I woke in the morning with my head pressed against them, and I realized the illustration was a portrait of a dog, not a basket of fruit. That was the first sign of eye troubles.

I should have dived eyes-first into the drive-in movie screen, instead of sitting in the rumble seat while my brother tolerated my company, stroking the worn steering wheel instead of his girlfriend’s arm. I licked the garlicky popcorn butter off my fingers as the bad guys duked it out on screen, studying the photos of a Monet by the warm light of an assassin’s fireball. Mom warned me not to read in the dark.

I should have planned on pedaling farther than a bicycle’s spokes could carry me, to a college out of sight of a cornfield. Then my watercolors might consist of more shapes than those rows of crops. They filled my studio window with a scene more inspiring than my blank canvass, distracting me from my work. When I hit a mental block, my eyes would skim those fields, and my hand would sketch them without my consent. So I bought a curtain, blinders for my eyes. Now, when confronted with an assignment deadline, I stare into two patchworks of nothing.

I should have bought French truffles (even though they actually came from China) instead of eating squash November through April, since it was the only local-grown crop that kept dry in the cellar. If I’d ever written letters (writing by candlelight would have done wonders for my eyes, I’m sure) I should have scraped the adhesive off the stamps, collected the little snapshots of another unreachable culture, and wondered what on earth the carnation and the scroll meant, anyway.

Freshman year, my school got vending machines that sold only carrots, in little bags like Barbie-Q chips. If I’d eaten them more often, Mom says, this wouldn’t have happened. Carrots help your eyes, if you don’t mind sacrificing your skin pigmentation. I’m sure Mom has a home remedy for that somewhere, too.

Living so close to the airport, the noise is whiter than my canvas, and just as distracting. I learned to block it out, to see it as the clacking typewriter of productivity. Now, in the silence of a corn field, I’m out of ink ribbon, armed with only a jar of liquid paper.

They say Beethoven was deaf; he felt out his symphonies through vibration and memory, note by note through dozens of revisions. So could a half-blind artist paint by feeling the heat of refracted light off paint? Blazing yellow, eye-watering red, and snow-on-the-eyelashes blue?

Wearing another person’s glasses doesn’t show you how they view the world, all blurry and unfocused. You have to have their eyes, too.

In hindsight, I should have worn frumpy sweatshirts and frizzy hair, instead of squeezing my legs into skinny jeans and ironing my hair pizzelle-thin every day. I have to change my style now to accommodate the glasses. It’s a fine line between sophisticated genius and bookworm, and there’s no way I’m letting a contact get that close to my eyeball. Don’t they hurt? Don’t they sting, like ill-suited people forced too close together?

I wear my glasses when I check my email now, a half-dozen social networking sites open on my computer. Sitting in my chair, I escape the stuffy air of my house, filled with the breath of one too many family members. “Friends” leave me comments, telling me what they really think about my art without the hypocrisy of polite conversation getting in the way.

“She places her strokes with audacity, mocha-mint brown next to gaudy yellow,” some wannabe critic observes. “The result is, frankly, too ugly to endure.” I agree, in the Chinese sense of ugly. Every day, as I whizz past the inspiration for the scene on my bike, I think the same thing, how ugly it all is.

I shouldn’t have tried to read the words of my mother’s spy novels as I lay in her lap, collecting useless scraps of stories. I rolled my eyes beyond their natural range to graze across those black lines like crops, those precious sentences out of another human being’s head. Probably pulled an eye muscle that way. Then again, the critics would have you believe nothing in life should be hard to look at.

Deborah Rocheleau is a language fanatic. Her fiction has been published with the Tin House Open Bar100 Word Story, decomP magazinE, Flights, Mock Turtle Zine, and the Boston Literary Magazine. She is currently writing a contemporary young adult novel. She blogs at

See Deborah’s list of 5 Things tomorrow in our ongoing contributors’ series.